One of the summer’s most lauded independent dramas is “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller’s adaptation of the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, in which British actress Bel Powley plays Minnie Goetz, a fifteen-year old girl growing up in a dysfunctional family in 1970s San Francisco, who’s initiated into sex by her wayward mother’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard. The raw, direct narrative style distinguishes it from other cautionary tales of its kind, but in a way that avoids sensationalizing an extremely sensitive subject.
During a recent visit to Dallas, Heller and Powley discussed their attraction to the material. Heller, who had previously penned—and starred in—a stage adaptation of the book, said, “It’s been a long passion project in many incarnations. It wasn’t the type of thing where I was looking for a project or wanting to adapt something. My sister just gave me the book as a Christmas present. She had read it and loved it—she was a big fan of graphic novels. I read the book, and it was like a lightning bolt—I was so blown away by the honesty of the character. I felt like it was the most honest depiction of what it felt like to be a teenage girl that I’d ever run across—of the emotional state you’re in when you’re a teenage girl. And I hadn’t realized how much I had been looking for something like that in my life—I’d never come across something that felt that way.
“So it started me on a journey of stalking the author and her agent until I somehow convinced them to give me the rights to the book. I’d never done anything like that before. I actually brought cookies to the office of her agent, and it turned out later she was pregnant, so it really worked. I was really compelled and for whatever reason just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
In 2010, Heller’s stage adaptation of the book was mounted at New York’s 3LD Art & Technology Center. She starred as Goetz in the play, which was performed in the round, with a battery of projectors showing drawings that the girl kept in her notebook. “Obviously having written the stage play helped with the [screen] adaptation because I knew the characters inside and out,” Heller explained. “But I really started from scratch when I began conceiving of it as a film.”
For twenty-three year old Powley, who had previously acted on television and the stage, the film represented a move into features; she got the role via an audition tape she sent to Heller, who said, “For this character I did see lots and lots of girls, and Bel beat them all out.”
“I got the script probably a year before we started filming,” Powley recalled, “and I wanted to be in it so much, because I just related to the character implicitly. I just related to the way Minnie feels. The way that you are emotionally as a teenager is very specific to being a teenager. When I think back to how I felt…when I was a teenager, I don’t know how I survived it. The extremity of emotion is so huge, and everything feels like such a big deal. Everything is life or death. Marielle just captured that perfectly. I was reading the script and was like, ‘I felt like that.’
“Often teenage girls, if they are portrayed, are portrayed with really quippy answers, really sarcastic, like they know everything, or they’re really just two-dimensional. These [characters] are really earnest teenagers, and everything is life or death, really dramatic and romantic, and that’s not a teenage girl that I’ve ever seen on screen—not just somebody who talks honestly about all her sexual thoughts, though we never, ever get to see girls do that, we only see it from boys—but also just the earnestness I felt in that period of life.
“I feel like girls are seen as so passive when it comes to sexuality. They’re kind of put into two boxes…the virginal princess waiting for Prince Charming, and then you’ll give away your virginity to him…or you’re kind of like this high school slut, very cool and oversexualized. And if you’re too slutty, you’re punished for it in the end. For a teenage girl, that [idea] makes you feel like you’re a freak because you’re having sexual feelings, and it makes you feel very, very ostracized.”
“There’s this total double standard in the way we talk to [boys and girls] about sex,” Heller agreed.
Heller added that this particular story is made even more difficult because the man whom Minnie finally goes to bed with is twice her age. “The truth of the matter is that this is a situation that’s really gray, really complicated, and [that] examining what is clearly an abusive situation, but that doesn’t always feel like an abusive situation when you’re in it, is probably more truthful to these types of situations. I think that [Minnie] gets to go through her journey in a way that she’s not a victim and doesn’t view herself as a victim—but I do think this is a situation where an older man is taking advantage [of her].
“There’s a real power struggle between them, and I feel like it’s really off-balance, their relationship, but then sometimes it almost works, because Monroe has a tendency to act like a teenager and regress to a fifteen-year old boy…and Minnie has a tendency to act like an adult—she’s precocious and, like, over-mature. Then it goes off-kilter again. And that’s humanity for you.
“What I always loved about the character of Minnie is that she goes through some really difficult situations, but she remains true to herself. She’s curious, she’s bold, she’s artistic. She doesn’t lose herself. She doesn’t get destroyed by this situation. That’s why I think she’s also inspiring. Not because she doesn’t go through anything difficult—she does—but she comes out at the other end knowing herself better and feeling more empowered.
“That’s why I think of her as a hero.”